Effective security awareness includes everyone

I’m often asked which employees are most likely to be targeted by phishing emails. It’s interesting to think about, but the truth is that adversaries will target whichever employees can offer access to the enterprise’s network—and that could potentially be anyone in your organization. Recent research from ProofPoint confirmed this, finding that staff-level employees were targeted by phishing attacks more often than middle and executive management.

The takeaway here is that for security awareness to be effective, it needs to include everyone in your organization. Aside from the obvious security necessity, including the entire organization in your security awareness initiatives enhances your program in a number of ways.

Breaking out of the compliance mindset

During my years at Mandiant, I responded to a lot of breaches for a wide variety of organizations. Every breach case had one thing in common – the customer was compliant.

Difference in the group

Addressing security threats requires a new direction from the mindset that compliance equals security.

While compliance is a requirement for many organizations, compliance does not equal security. I was recently talking to a CISO who has divided his department into two teams – one focused on security and the other focused on compliance. The security team deals with emerging threats to the network, while the compliance team deals with regulations. It’s an interesting strategy, and one that reflects how separate compliance and security concerns have become.

Security awareness has traditionally been associated with the compliance side of security, but to be truly effective, it needs to focus on current threats and evolve with the threat landscape.

Use metrics to measure and improve security awareness

It’s no secret that data is revolutionizing industries. Baseball managers have applied data to buck century-old beliefs about strategy (think Moneyball), anyone who has ever used Amazon.com knows that data has transformed retail, local law enforcement analyzes data to predict crime, and scientists are even using data to stop the spread of infectious diseases.

Most security awareness programs fail to gather metrics. Those that do typically measure inputs instead of outputs. What this means is that many teams are measuring items such as the number users who complete a CBT course or attended a lunch instead of the number of incidents related to a specific IT risk area. This is akin to looking at the number of times I visit a dentist each year instead of the number of dental incidents (cavities, root canals, etc.) and using that data as an indicator of good dental health.

How do you make security awareness engaging?

Think back to all of the corporate training you’ve sat through during your career. Chances are (especially if you’ve worked at a large enterprise), that some of that training had little relevance to your job duties. How much knowledge from those courses did you retain? Although you technically completed the training, would you have been able to apply any of the information you were given in real life?

For many employees, security awareness training falls into this category. It’s something they probably don’t care about, and that doesn’t help them do their jobs. This is why traditional awareness training has failed. Users will do what they have to do to get through the training, check the box, and get back to their regular jobs. Their security awareness training is now a distant memory buried in a pile of other dull corporate training they’ve been forced to endure over the years.

For effective security awareness, keep it focused

Switch book coverIn their book, “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard” authors Chip and Dan Heath examine how influencing humans to change requires appealing to two parts of the brain: the rational and the emotional. Since the emotional part of our brain often gets frustrated when asked to make huge changes, Chip and Dan recommend that we “shrink the change” to change behavior in the face of resistance.

The Heaths cite financial guru Dave Ramsey’s “Debt Snowball” strategy as an effective example of shrinking the change. For people mired in a mountain of debt, this strategy advocates paying off their smallest debts first – regardless of interest rates. Although this flies in the face of conventional financial wisdom, it is a lot easier for people to remain focused by paying off a $200 debt than it is to pay off $200 of a $20k debt. It’s easier for our brains to process manageable changes, and when we feel like change is manageable, we’re more likely to implement it.

To make training stick, immerse employees

When aspiring pilots go through flight school, they learn both in a conventional ground setting and using a flight simulator. On the simulator, new pilots are immersed in the experience of flying, and receive real-time feedback about their decision making. Not surprisingly, the simulator is seen as a more effective training tool than conventional classroom training.

One of the greatest challenges facing security awareness initiatives is providing employees with an experience they will actually remember and retain. Training users to avoid risky security behavior is not nearly as complicated as teaching someone to fly a plane, but just like with pilots, immersive training that simulates the kind of attack methods employees face is a more effective way to conduct security awareness.

To improve security awareness, think marketing

Security awareness is a term that often makes IT security pros cringe. It brings to mind images of mind-numbing training or of ineffectual posters and stress balls urging employees to change their passwords frequently.

Based on years of experience working with enterprises and other large organizations, we are launching a new blog series, “7 Principles Critical to Security Awareness Programs”, that will offer some insight in concepts we have incorporated in our solution to demonstrably improve security awareness for our customers.

The first topic we will address is marketing.

Changing behavior is one of the greatest challenges security officers face when implementing security awareness programs. Convincing people to change is hard in any arena, but when it comes to security – an area which most users neither know nor care much about – it’s especially difficult. We can learn a lot about changing behavior from a source security pros are often wary of: marketers.